Reviewed by Tony Villecco
As the fabulous Bette Davis said, “Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.” And it was Saturday (Sept. 7) — and also spectacular, as Peter Quilter’s love letter to Judy Garland, End of the Rainbow, opened at the Cider Mill Stage in Endicott.
Members of the almost sold-out house sat enraptured by some brilliant acting and — even more so — some damn impressive singing. With this production, crafted beautifully by director Kate Murray, BLAST (Bold Local Artists of the Southern Tier) has staged quite possibly the fall highlight for local theater fans.
Who doesn’t know the tragic story of Judy Garland, who was eaten alive by Hollywood and a domineering stage mother? At MGM, Garland was pushed to the max in film after film, starting as a young adolescent, and all with the help of uppers and downers and booze — whatever it took her to get out there and perform. Studio head L.B. Mayer, realizing he had a goldmine in Garland, did his part to ensure she would deliver, no matter what the cost to her health. (Addiction eventually led to her death.)
Quilter’s show centers around Garland’s London concerts in 1968, when she was already long past her prime and mental capacity. As Garland, Shannon DeAngelo was mesmerizing. It’s hard to imagine anyone BUT DeAngelo being able to envelope Judy’s deeply scarred psyche at a time when she must have known it was over but had this insatiable need to prove she was still Garland and she could still deliver, as always with help of pills and alcohol.
DeAngelo, under Murray’s direction, wisely avoided the temptation to make Garland into a camp figure who was, and still is, idolized by the gay population. There was no attempt to make a caricature of her as many drag performers and female impersonators try to do.
This was raw, vulgar, sad, dynamic Judy — broken and bandaged but surviving the demons which certainly must have tormented her since a child doing the vaudeville circuits. DeAngelo’s Garland even joked about “having pills sewn into my dresses” and “taped to the back of furniture.”
DeAngelo sang with power and emotion, even at Garland’s lowest point. Many of Garland’s hits were covered including the charming “You Made Me Love You,” which was originally a film short of a young Judy at MGM writing a fan letter to Clark Gable.
As Mickey Deans, Garland’s lover and manager (and last husband), Shan Towns also was spot on. We are left pondering if he really loved her or needed her to support his own career. He starts by vehemently protecting her, keeping the pills at bay, then becomes her enabler because– as one knows — the show must go on.
Anthony Chapman, Garland’s longtime friend and pianist, was played brilliantly by Jan DeAngelo who didn’t miss a comic beat as the over-the-top gay Englishman. His admiration and love for Judy is sadder when she eventually pushes him away. In addition, Jan DeAngelo played the jazz ballads beautifully with a superb backup band, evocative of the days when a singer had superb musicians and a microphone and nothing else.
All the smaller parts were equally done well. Rob Egan was the radio host who cannot harness Garland long enough to share a coherent conversation. Matthew Beach, Chelsea Cleary and Annie McNulty completed the cast.
The set and lights were by Richard Vollmer and C. Saeger, who transported us from a London hotel room to a brilliant lit stage. The stunning and period appropriate costumes were provided by Julia Adams and Tami Beach.
It’s good to remember that once we had such performers, legends really, who can never be replicated. Despite a harrowing existence and five marriages, Garland continues to intrigue and make us grateful. Her untimely death in 1969, at age 47, only serves to keep the legend alive. And boy, what a legend. You won’t want to miss this show, so please get your tickets soon. I suspect the performances will sell out.
IF YOU GO: Performances will continue at 7:30 p.m. this Sunday (Sept. 22) and Sept. 26-29 at Cider Mill Stage, 2 Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. (Note: The show is recommended for ages 14 and up.) Tickets are $25 (seniors and students, $22). Call 778-9617 or visit http://www.cidermillstage.com/ or https://cidermillstage.thundertix.com/events/155057